Aspiring to NATO membership

Zvonimir Mahecic analyses Croatia's relationship with NATO and its Alliance membership aspirations.

Croatia's January 2000 elections represented a watershed in the development of the country's security and defence structures. They brought to power democrats committed to promoting the rule of law, human rights and civil liberties and aspiring to deeper and closer relations with the European Union and NATO with a view to eventual membership in both organisations. In the intervening period, Croatia has come a long way, but the country still has even further to travel if it is to meet these goals.

The change was immediate and manifested itself in improved relations and increased cooperation both with neighbouring countries and the wider international community. Moreover, this new state of affairs was rapidly recognised by NATO, with the result that Croatia was able to join the Partnership for Peace programme and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in May 2000. Two years later, Croatia joined the Membership Action Plan (MAP) - too late to be invited to join the Alliance at last year's Prague Summit.

Today, Croatia actively participates in many regional security initiatives. These include the Quadrilateral Initiative, together with Hungary, Italy and Slovenia, and the Adriatic Charter, together with Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* as well as the South East Europe Defence Ministers Meeting and the South East Europe Brigade. And Zagreb is host to the Regional Arms Control and Verification Implementation Centre. This is a regional forum for security dialogue, enhanced cooperation and confidence building that is now deepening and expanding its involvement in regional security and defence cooperation.

Representatives of the state and its political institutions as well as much of the public are aware that our credibility as a partner remains to a large extent dependent on ongoing cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. While the administration is committed to such cooperation, some Croats and certain political parties resent the intrusion of a foreign court in internal matters. As a result, opinion-formers in all institutions have to renew efforts to explain the importance of war-crimes trials to reconstruction, reconciliation and the embedding of clear moral and ethnical principles and the rule of law in our society. For, as all senior Croatian officials argue, guilt is individual, not collective. The ICTY is one of the elements that should help build a framework for reconciliation, but it remains remote from its beneficiaries, ordinary people on all sides who were victims during the war. For this reason and to build effective state structures, efforts also need to be made to establish the conditions for proper war-crimes trials in our own domestic courts.

Defence reforms

Since the change in regime, many security-related constitutional and legal reforms have been passed. These include the Defence Act and the Military Service Act, both of which helped establish appropriate civilian control of the armed forces and security agencies. The Hrvatski Sabor (parliament) and its Committee for Internal Affairs and National Security now has authority over the Armed Forces as far as their financing, deployment, and appointment procedures are concerned. The Defence Ministry is responsible for their daily management in close cooperation with the President who, as Commander-in-Chief, is solely responsible for defending the country's political independence and territorial integrity. Under the new arrangement, the role of the Chief-of-Staff has been clarified. He is now directly accountable to the Defence Minister and, in some cases with the Prime Minister's consent, to the President, and responsible for preparing key documents concerning the Armed Forces' daily operations.

Similar reforms have been applied to the security agencies. Under the provisions of the National Security Act, a National Security Council has been established, including the President, the Prime Minister and some of the more prominent ministers, which manages and commands the security agencies.

The adoption of a National Security Strategy and Defence Strategy in spring 2002 and a Military Strategy a year later also represent important milestones for security and defence structures. Under the new legal provisions, the General Staff, Defence Minister, President, government, and parliament all played a part in drafting, assessing and adopting these strategic documents. Although there may still be shortcomings both in their substance and in the process by which they were prepared, the effort invested and the learning experience have been extremely positive. The fact that Croatia now possesses these strategic documents adds coherence and efficiency to the state's activities in this area and future versions will no doubt be improved with the benefit of experience.

The desire to upgrade Croatia's military capabilities is motivated by two main considerations. Firstly, since we are not a member of NATO, we have to maintain sufficient independent military capabilities to ensure our national security. Secondly, at the same time, we have to think about the kinds of military capabilities that we might be able to bring to NATO in the event that we are invited to join the Alliance and the standards that we will have to meet. At the same time, however, the military reform process is constrained by limited resources.

Work on defence reform began with organisational restructuring in the Defence Ministry, General Staff and Armed Forces. In the Defence Ministry, many departments have been reduced; the Croatian Army has been reorganised into four corps; and a new Joint Education and Training Command as well as a Logistic Command have been created. At the same time, the Armed Forces are being downsized. According to the latest estimates, 5,000 soldiers have left or applied to leave voluntarily since the change of regime and another 2,000 are expected to follow by the end of 2003. A special programme has been set up with NATO support to assist the reintegration of former soldiers into civilian life, by, for example, organising workshops to help them acquire skills for alternative employment. In addition, several superfluous military installations are being converted for civilian use, thereby enabling the Defence Ministry to save funds that would otherwise have been spent on refurbishment and maintenance.

Budget matters

Savings - wherever they can be made - are important to help fund further reforms and improvements in military capabilities, since reducing the numbers of active soldiers is, in the short-term at least, costly and is placing great pressure on both the military and the state budget. In common with many European countries, Croatia suffers from a "zero-growth budget" mentality that has seen the resources allocated to the military decline in both absolute and relative terms every year for the past six years. As the economy improves, with greater stability throughout the region and the return of mass tourism, this situation should improve and it might be possible to increase military spending without significantly changing the proportion of national wealth allocated to this area.

If everything goes to plan, the mid-term projection for the military budget is 2.2 per cent of GDP, which is almost 10 per cent more in relative terms than this year. And the projected military budget structure is 50 per cent for personnel (compared with 70 per cent this year), 30 per cent for operational costs and infrastructure and 20 per cent for acquisition. But these issues still need to be properly debated by politicians and public alike in order to build a national consensus on what we should expect from our Armed Forces and what resources we are prepared to invest in them.

Since joining the Partnership for Peace in May 2000, Croatia has progressively intensified its dialogue with NATO and made the most of Alliance expertise, structures and programmes, including the Planning and Review Process, to assist and guide the military reform process. MAP participation has helped build awareness that preparations for NATO membership involve far more than the Defence Ministry, thereby making inter-agency coordination essential. Whereas the early focus of Croatia's relationship with the Alliance was on preparing forces to participate in NATO/PfP operations, today they cover a much broader range of activities. Indeed, Croatia is working on implementing 48 Partner goals, 38 of which fall under the jurisdiction of the Defence Ministry and General Staff, and 10 of which involve inter-agency cooperation.

Successful and timely implementation of these goals will result in reformed defence structures and in the Armed Forces' ability to meet NATO standards of interoperability. This in turn will affect the most important elements of our defence policy, especially those connected to training and education, acquisition, financial and material management. In our efforts to install sufficient safeguards and procedures to make secure the most sensitive exchange of information with NATO, considerable progress has already been made. Under the provisions of the Security Services Law, which was passed by the Hrvatski Sabor in March 2002, a legal framework has been established for the creation of an Information Security and Cipher Protection Agency. The main function of this agency will be to protect the secure flow of information through government departments and agencies.

Under the same law, an Office of the National Security Council has also been created. This body is designed to provide the National Security Council with the expertise, analytical capabilities and administrative support that it requires and includes a central register for distribution of documents. In the future, one of its tasks will be to carry out security clearances to NATO standards of individuals who might have access to sensitive documentation or information.

These changes and others brought in during the past two years, as Croatia changed its political system from one that was semi-presidential to one that is parliamentary, have generally streamlined relations between political institutions and security and defence structures. Some discrepancies, nevertheless, remain. One example is that the President, who is Commander-in-Chief responsible for national defence, is not yet legally involved in the process of preparing the military budget or the long-term development plan for the Armed Forces. But this and other discrepancies can be worked out, given good will on all sides of the political spectrum.

NATO focus

Several further NATO-related documents are currently being prepared. This includes a Long-Term Development Plan of the Armed Forces (due to be completed by the end of 2003), a Modernisation Plan, a Strategic Defence Review (scheduled for completion in 2004), a Study on the Professionalisation of the Armed Forces and a Joint Doctrine of the Armed Forces. In combination, these documents should contribute to further improvements in Croatia's defence structures and greater efficiency in defence matters. Despite this, much legislation - including laws concerning the stationing of foreign troops on Croatian soil and the deployment of the Croatian Armed Forces abroad in response to Article 5, collective-defence obligations - still need to be overhauled before Croatia is ready to join NATO.

In this context, a new challenge will be to reinforce domestic support for NATO membership while making it clear that the Alliance's collective-defence provisions involve both benefits and opportunities and costs and responsibilities. The latest opinion polls indicate support for Alliance membership in Croatia to be between 50 and 60 per cent. For this figure to increase, the government will have to address the obstacles ahead and engage the wider public in a forthright debate.

As a small country that has experienced the consequences of war and instability, we cannot take security for granted and have to invest in it ourselves and, additionally, to use all available international tools and mechanisms. In this way, Croatia is eager to play its part in addressing the most crucial security problems of today; is helping develop regional cooperation and understanding: and is participating actively in both the war against terrorism and efforts to combat the threat of organised crime, an issue of special concern in Southeastern Europe.

Croatian military observer teams and civilian experts are involved in a variety of UN peacekeeping missions - in Sierra Leone, West Sahara, Eritrea-Ethiopia, Kashmir and East Timor. Moreover, we recently deployed a military police platoon to Afghanistan within the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and are supporting ongoing international efforts in peace-building in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in resolving ethnic unrest in Kosovo and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.* Our troops have learned a lot through their foreign deployments and been praised for their professionalism by the United Nations, the officials of host countries and by field commanders.

Croatia remains focused on the MAP process and intends to maintain the pace of military reform in the coming years in the expectation that NATO's door will remain open and one day soon the country will be invited to join the Alliance. In the words of President Stjepan Mesic at the Prague Summit: "We are well aware of our obligations and know that only by fulfilling them can we achieve our aspirations."

Zvonimir Mahecic is a brigadier in the Croatian Army and assistant head of President Stjepan Mesic's military cabinet.

* Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.